Director: Scott Derrickson
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton
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“I don’t believe in fairy tales about chakras, or energy, or the power of belief.” That’s Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) at the start of Marvel’s latest movie. Will his opinion change by the time the end credits roll? There are no points for guessing: it’s right there on the poster. From the off, it’s clear that we’re watching something conventional, as super-surgeon Stephen finds himself gradually transforming from a shallow, selfish, rich guy into an altruistic, super-powered hero.
Benedict Cumberbatch is in full douche mode at the outset, swaggering around with all the arrogance and ability of Tony Stark. He’s so good at playing the flawed protagonist, though, and the privileged white male superhero role feels so familiar, that it’s hard to like Stephen, or cheer him on. So when he finds his hands injured in a car crash, taking away the gift that made him so successful and self-important, his moping self-pity is far from sympathetic – and the resulting breakdown of his relationship with former colleague Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) is both a subplot that never rises above hollow cliche and a waste of a great actress.
If there’s not much substance to Doctor Strange’s standard redemption narrative, though, there’s much to be said for its surface. Director Scott Derrickson, who conjured genuine scares in horror movie Sinister, sinks his teeth into the chance to craft an otherworldly atmosphere – and boy, does he do that. Taking a leaf from Inception, and another from The Prestige (or Batman Begins), he pieces together a universe that’s nothing less than gobsmacking; your jaw will be left hanging by the first set piece and it won’t come off the floor for the rest of the film. Walls fold into walls, streets open up onto streets, buildings crumble into buildings and in between them all, our cast hop like characters in the weirdest Super Mario game ever.
And what a cast Marvel has assembled, with the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor as a trusted follower of The Ancient One, who encourages Stephen to study magic so that he might heal his hands, to Benedict Wong as Wong, the librarian at the temple of Kamar-Taj. And, at the heart of this bizarre world, Tilda Swinton is typically awesome as The Ancient One, a mentor with an impossible knowledge of the unseen yet a recognisably human streak of cruelty and self-preservation.
They bring a surprising amount of gravitas to what would otherwise be a ridiculous montage of CGI effects, with Swinton’s ambiguous presence, in particular, raising the question of ethics in the practice of the occult. Add in a menacing Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, a former star pupil of The Ancient One, who went rogue and was seduced by the power of the dark side, and you have a welcome web of mythology and morals, with just enough complexity to be able to spin off into sequels full of conflict.
For all of Stephen’s stroppy opening act, meanwhile, Doctor Strange has a winning sense of humour that keeps the pace zipping along – one sequence in which Strange steals books from under Wong’s nose is laugh-out-loud funny, while even Stephen’s cloak has a slapstick mind of its own that doesn’t cease to amuse.
The result is far from groundbreaking in its plot, but the presentation excels in all departments – from the inventive action and the pitch-perfect performances to a witty climax that bears repeating over and over again. And while Strange may not be the most engaging of protagonists, Cumberbatch makes the leap from the small screen and a string of serious feature film roles to blockbuster leading man territory like he’s been firing off zingers, juggling green screens and carrying franchises his whole life; if there were ever any doubt of Benedict’s star quality, this is bona fide proof he’s an A-lister with a capital “A”. “I don’t believe in fairy tales about chakras, or energy,” he scoffs, and the film’s success lies in how much pleasure it takes in undermining this self-important smart alec, physically, mentally and spiritually. You won’t be Stephen Strange’s biggest fan, but by the end of this eye-opening romp, no matter how tired you are of superhero flicks, you’ll absolutely be a believer.
Doctor Strange is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.
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